This Christmas many families will have untreated addicts attending the family gathering and everyone will do their best to pretend everything is ok. The normal questions like “what have you been up to?” and “how’s work going?” will be avoided. Everybody will try and get through the day without upsetting each other and have a nice Christmas.

Imagine if that person had diabetes, heart disease or cancer it’s likely your family would do everything they could to get that person into treatment.  You would be researching treatment options, talking with other family members and friends on the phone, ringing doctors and clinics and insisting your loved one got the treatment they needed. You would be supporting your loved one through their fear and denial, telling them you loved them and believed in them.  Telling them it’s not their fault and they need help. You would not be sitting around on Christmas Day pretending everything was OK

Why do we do this year after year? Because we don’t understand addiction.

Imagine if Amy Winehouse’s family had insisted she go to Rehab.  We could be buying her latest album as a Christmas present for family and friends.  Instead she died tragically young from a condition that can be arrested with treatment.  Imagine if your sister or husband or son or daughter had a chronic illness and was refusing treatment. What would you do?

We tend to respond differently to addiction than we do to other chronic health conditions. We pretend the addiction is not that bad, we have the (false) belief that the person must be ‘ready’ for treatment.  We avoid the issue altogether or worse still we blame the addict.  Addiction is seen as “self-inflicted” and the addict is told they need to sort it out themselves.  As family members we are less likely to talk to our friends about my daughter the heroin addict, my husband the alcoholic.  We are ashamed of our loved one’s struggle with addiction and because of this shame we want to hide the problem away.  We don’t talk about it openly, we don’t ask our friends for help or advice in the same way that we would if my son had diabetes or my mother had heart disease.  Because addiction is seen as a moral failing addicts and their families are not receiving the treatment they need and people are dying.

There was a time when people were ashamed to have a cancer diagnosis. It was common practice for the patient not to be told they had cancer and for family members to hide the diagnosis.  People endured cancer without the love and support they required.  Can you imagine that now? Breast cancer, prostate cancer, melanoma are all serious and treatable conditions that now get the attention and public support they deserve.  Pink ribbon day is a national emblem of love and support for women with breast cancer; as it should be.  It is interesting to note that the cancer that has lingering shame associated with it is lung cancer. A cancer associated with addiction.

Let’s look at some of the facts about addiction:

  • Addiction is a treatable condition.
  • Addiction can be fatal.
  • Addiction is a chronic disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease.
  • Addiction is a mental and physical illness.
  • Addiction alters brain function.
  • Detox alone is very unlikely to help anyone achieve even medium term change.
  • 90 days of residential treatment is accepted worldwide as the minimum length of stay if you want to achieve lasting change.
  • Aftercare is vital.
  • Addiction is nobody’s fault.
  • People who are mandated into treatment do as well, if not better, than voluntary patients.
  • We hit our rock bottom when we stop digging- early intervention is best.

This Christmas families are going to come together. Many people are going to drink too much, eat too much and others will fight and argue. This is pretty standard and I’m sure you can relate.  Sure, some families are going to have a great time too and I am happy for them. I am.  The families I want to talk to are the ones where the addict remains untreated, where the chaos and unmanageability of your loved one’s life is just ongoing. Who is missing from your family Christmas this year?  Who is using ice, heroin, or chronically smoking cannabis and unable to face the family Christmas lunch?  Or, who made it to Christmas and is sitting across from you suffering from an untreated and potentially fatal chronic health condition?

Families are crucial in supporting people suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol into treatment.  Addiction doesn’t just go away; it gets progressively worse. It is unfair to expect the addict to recognize that they need treatment and be able to organize it for themselves. Addicts are chaotic. Their brains are organized to seek and use drugs. Your loved one needs you to support them into treatment because they cannot do it for themselves.  Addiction does not respond to negative consequences. One of the defining features of addiction is that people cannot stop despite potentially catastrophic consequences.  This is not because people are bad, it’s because they are sick.

Amy Winehouse was an extremely unwell young woman who did not receive the treatment she needed to save her life.  She died of alcohol poisoning aged 27.  She had everything- talent, money, fame, and a loving family. What she didn’t have was the insistence that she enter long-term treatment.  Families can inadvertently support the addiction by making excuses for the addict, giving them one more chance, ignoring the lies, deceit and suffering and siting around the Christmas table pretending everything is ok when it’s not. This Christmas give the gift of fierce compassion to anyone in your family suffering from addiction.  Love them into treatment.

Make the right decision now and next Christmas your loved one could be celebrating a year clean in recovery and not another Xmas in the grip of addiction pretending everything is ok.

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